Don’t Blunder Your Way to a PR Disaster


Being forced to sit on the sidelines and watch some public relations disasters unfold recently, prompted me to review what it is that makes an organisation ignore sound and perfectly obvious advice on how to manage its image. A number of high profile companies and associations that I have advised in the past have come to grief lately. It’s frustrating, when you’ve spent many hours of your time as a communications specialist trying to educate people in the simple rigours of brand hygiene, to see them run into a brick wall at full pelt.

So why do some organisations blunder their way to hell in a handcart ignoring simple strategies to manage issues before they become crisis and turning their backs on ways to improve how they are perceived while there is still time to win over their audiences?

We have to recognise that even today, many business executives just don’t “get” communications and just as many just don’t “get” the value of consultancy. “It’s only PR” and “what can an outsider know about our business that we don’t?” are still pretty common responses in 21st century New Zealand.

Essentially as business communications consultants, most of the time we are paid to study and analyse companies, monitor how they are seen, assess their business objectives and then advise how those objectives might be better realised through improved communications. We don’t get distracted by the business of the business. We bring a clarity and perspective that can easily be lost through the daily rigour of managing an organisation.

To be fair, the clients I work with commercially understand this. I choose to work with them because they do get it. If they don’t, I say goodbye. I’ve watched with rueful interest a dairy business and an aviation related operation struggle because they continued not to get it long after I had walked away.

The bigger problem of late has been the fee-free guys. Some of the time, because I think it is the right thing to do, I donate my skills either through a form of mentoring or by voluntary service on a handful of not for profit boards. It’s when these come a cropper in spite of your best advice that it can really hurt.

Many of the decisions people running businesses and organisations take are a mix of their own opinions and advice from other sources. Sometimes these sources are informal and in house, others more structured from specialist consultants such as me.

But it appears that whether there’s a fee or not might impact on how seriously your advice is taken. It seems that people just don’t take free advice seriously. There’s an intriguing study[1], which chimes with my current experience of common sense counsel being ignored, that looked at one factor that might affect the use of advice: the cost.

The American research suggests that, independent of its quality, people would weigh advice significantly more when it costs money than when it is free. The researchers tested the hypothesis in three different experiments, which all seemed to show that decision makers will rely more heavily on advice when it costs money than when it is free. That’s bad news for voluntary mentoring and confirmed by anecdotal evidence in New Zealand that the main barrier to the uptake of business mentoring is SME company owners’ difficulty in valuing something which is free.

To add to the confusion, the research also suggests that people are affected by an ‘in-for-a-penny-in-for-a-pound’ mentality. If they have paid for counsel, the more they had spent on advice the more they would be willing to continue spending and following that advice even if it doesn’t appear to be delivering results. This is something psychologists call the the sunk costs fallacy, where people reason: I can’t stop now, otherwise what I’ve invested so far will be lost.

What seems to happen is that the cost of advice affects the degree to which people use the advice, even though there is no relationship to the the value gained or not by following the advice, which might explain why some organisations stick with clearly moribund PR programmes even as they sink further into the mire.

The psychological process is curious and flies in the face of common sense and rational assessment. It appears that when advice costs money, people seem to value their personal opinions less than others. When the advice is free, they instead weigh their personal opinions more than others. Was there ever a better argument for demanding outcomes measurement?

When it comes communications consultancy, the research leaves a lot of questions unanswered. We don’t really understand how much pain decision makers need to experience before their sensitivity to the cost incurred to acquire advice is overcome. Or how much suffering a business needs to endure before it reassesses what results its communications is delivering? Is there a sweet spot where intervention can save the day? Or is it usually too late? The researchers admit they don’t know how much the ‘‘size” of cost matters.

For what it’s worth, in my experience, it depends on who you ask.


[1] Gino, F. , Do we listen to advice just because we paid for it? The impact of advice cost on …, Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes (2008), doi:10.1016/j.obhdp.2008.03.001